Che chic

His face adorns the banners of guerillas - and the apparel of Hollywood stars. Has the iconic image usurped a thrilling - and tragic - story?

No doubt about it, the image is stunning, iconic, indelible. The picture of a revolutionary in a gold-starred black cap - jaw set, nostrils slightly flared, eyes dark and exploding with emotion - has been reproduced on countless banners and college-dorm posters.

Today, his image is so ubiquitous it has become fodder for couture. Even Paris Hilton could be forgiven for thinking Ernesto "Che" Guevara was the greatest accessory designer since Jimmy Choo. Model Gisele Bündchen strutted down the catwalk in a Che bikini, and Elizabeth Hurley club-hopped across London with a $4,500 Che-embroidered Louis Vuitton handbag. Even teen star Lindsay Lohan dons a tight-fitting Che shirt in "Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen."

How did an avowed Marxist become, literally, the poster boy for conspicuous capitalist consumption? Is it Che's story that fascinates, or has his memory been usurped by that sole image, one that speaks to a life many know little, if anything, about?

"There's just this fascination people have with the man - which is not of the man, but of the photograph," says Ana Menéndez, author of "Loving Che."

Impressions of the Argentine, who was Fidel Castro's right-hand man during the Cuban revolution in the late 1950s, will be further affected by two upcoming films, one starring Oscar-winner Benicio Del Toro, as well as Ms. Menéndez's just-released novel imagining the revolutionary's love life.

Born to a well-to-do family in Argentina, but hindered by asthma, Che hoped to become a doctor. In early adulthood he traveled throughout South America and began to see the world's problems as political, not medical. Soon after joining the fight against the Batista regime in Cuba, Che (whose nickname is the diminutive "you" in Argentina) became popular among the working class of Cuba. An intellectual, Che quoted poets and philosophers, but deplored elitism. After the revolution, he went to Bolivia to help overthrow the government in 1966. He was captured by the Bolivian Army a year later and executed.

When Cuban photographer Alberto Korda snapped what the Maryland Institute of Art now calls "the most famous photograph in the world" at a memorial service in 1960, the journal Revolucion rejected it. Mr. Korda tacked it to his apartment wall, where it hung, all but forgotten, until an Italian journalist saw it seven years later. Korda let the journalist keep the photo, and when Che was executed it was made into a poster in Italy.

Korda refused to collect royalties for the photo - even when it was duplicated at a furious pace. But when it was used in a vodka ad in 2000, he protested. "As a supporter of the ideals for which Che Guevara died, I am not averse to its reproduction by those who wish to propagate his memory and the cause of social justice throughout the world," he said in a formal statement. "But I am categorically against the exploitation of Che's image for the promotion of products such as alcohol, or for any purpose that denigrates the reputation of Che."

Ironically, Korda's desire to protect Che's image by not claiming ownership of it led to its wide availability. Since Korda's death in 2001, the image has continued to be used for varying purposes - and how he would have felt about a Che bikini, for instance, will never be known.

When Jon Lee Anderson's critically acclaimed biography "Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life" was released in 1997, a torrent of kids kept pouring into a bookstore in New York, where the famous image of the Argentine was propped in its window. Anderson, who doesn't credit the recent resurgence of Che memorabilia to his biography, was asked to sign copies.

"They were selling [it] like crazy - and simply because of the picture in the window," he recalls. "Many of them mispronounced his name; some even spelled it out. They instinctively knew he was cool."

In "Loving Che," Menéndez writes about the revolutionary through the lens of a Cuban painter's obsession with his image. "There were several catalysts to the novel, the strongest of which was just seeing the face of Che everywhere," the former journalist says. "To me, it's a sad symbol, in a way. He has a very sad, faraway expression. [Castro's revolutionaries] had been in power for some time. Perhaps he was dealing with some personal disillusionment."

In this love story, Menéndez confronts the fallibility of memory. "A lot of people revere him as a great savior and a great idealist - which he was. But many gloss over the fact that he was also a brutal man, the head of a firing squad in the opening days of the revolution. This unsavory aspect is glossed over much in the way one glosses over someone when one is in love."

Might that kind of love and devotion for a leader dilute his message? What if that love and devotion are aroused by an image, and not by the leader at all?

"There's something about Che's face - that iconic image - which seems immediately identifiable to young people of almost any generation and almost any culture," Anderson muses. "It's the virile personification of youthful defiance against the status quo, whatever the status quo is. I don't think the consumption of Che iconography empties the vessel, because it was always thus. But there's been more to learn behind that image."

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